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  • Indonesia's Vision of Regional Order in East Asia amid U.S.-China Rivalry:Continuity and Change
  • Dewi Fortuna Anwar (bio)

Indonesia's vision of the desirable order in Southeast Asia and the wider region has evolved over time, influenced by changes in both domestic politics and the external environment. Perceptions of external threats, national priorities, and the best means of promoting national interests have not remained constant. Nevertheless, Indonesia's "free and active" (bebas aktif) foreign policy that stresses nonalignment and strategic outlook that emphasizes the importance of national and regional resilience have provided important principles of continuity. First and foremost, Indonesia desires strategic autonomy for itself and the immediate environment in Southeast Asia, whereby regional states are masters of their own destinies rather than simply succumbing to the dictate of one or more external powers.

This essay will examine Indonesia's vision of an East Asian regional order in the context of the current rivalry between the United States as the resident power and China as the ascendant power. This rivalry, if not conflict, has been the permanent backdrop for Indonesia's foreign policy since the early days of independence and has informed much of it.

The History of Indonesian Foreign Policy

Indonesia's foreign policy has been shaped by a combination of factors such as geography, history, natural endowment, and level of economic development. On the one hand, Indonesia's successful revolutionary struggle for independence, huge geographic size and strategic location, wealth in natural resources, and large population have inculcated a strong sense of national confidence, an activist foreign policy outlook, and an unwillingness to simply become a follower of a great power or an alliance of powers. On the other hand, the long history of colonial exploitation under a divide-and-rule policy, the difficulty of uniting an unwieldy and porous archipelago with a highly heterogeneous population, the frequent intervention of competing external powers, a relatively low level of economic development, and limited [End Page 57] capacity in terms of real power have all contributed to Indonesia's constant feeling of vulnerability and deep-seated suspicions of all major powers.1

These historical experiences play a particularly important role in Indonesia's perceptions of itself and its relations with the outside world. In 1948, three years after its declaration of independence and coinciding with the onset of the Cold War, Indonesia affirmed that its foreign policy would be "free and active." Essentially this meant that Indonesia would not join any military alliances or Cold War power blocs but would instead chart its own course as an active subject, and not simply an object, in international affairs.2

Indonesia's policy toward its immediate regional environment, however, has been informed not only by normative principles but also by internal politics. In the first twenty years of independence under President Sukarno, Indonesia prioritized the completion of its de-colonization process, seeing Western neocolonialism and imperialism as the main threats to its independence and territorial integrity. Reflecting both its sense of vulnerability and regional entitlement, Jakarta opposed the Federation of Malaysia, which Sukarno perceived as a strategy to encircle Indonesia. This confrontation with Malaysia (known as Konfrontasi) continued until the rise of the New Order government under President Suharto in 1966. During this period, Indonesia developed particularly close relations with China, forging an axis of progressive countries, which badly strained relations with the United States.

In contrast, the army-led New Order government under Suharto that dominated Indonesian politics until the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis regarded Communist subversion, particularly coming from China, as the main threat to national security and political stability. The Suharto government banned the Indonesian Communist Party and froze diplomatic relations with China between 1967 and 1990. Indonesia also ended its confrontational regional foreign policy and became a primary supporter of cooperation as the best means of maintaining peace and stability in Southeast Asia, regarded as a prerequisite for economic development. The New Order's foreign policy was mostly characterized by its pragmatism and emphasis on the economic benefits of foreign policy. Indonesia became a co-founder of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was seen in part as a shield against the...


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